Jesus famously declared, “the poor you will have with you always (Matthew 26:11);” a statement that deserves some consideration, because, at first it might strike some as callous and at odds with the character of Christ, but also because, as we examine it, and the Lord’s intention and meaning as He said it, helps us to better understand the doctrine of Christ regarding Himself and our work in this world.
When Jesus made this declaration, He was preparing Himself to die. He had been telling His apostles repeatedly that He would be crucified in a few short days in Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 26:1-2), and He wanted them to be ready for the event. In the home of Simon, a feast was held in Jesus’ honor and at this feast, Mary the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus with a full pound of nard, a costly (at the time) oil. It was calculated that the cost of that much nard was 300 denarii, or almost a year’s worth of wages (cf. John 12:1-8). The disciples were shocked at the extravagance, and what they perceived to be a waste of resources, and Judas in particular began arguing that the oil should have been sold so as to use the money to feed the poor. When Judas says this, the Scriptures allow us a look into his heart and motivations, noting that he wanted the money to be in the treasury because he embezzled from the poor box and thus saw it as an opportunity for more graft.
The fullest quote from the situation is that supplied by Mark in his gospel: “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. (Mark 14:6-8; ESV)”
Jesus was not showing indifference to the plight of the poor. He, in His ministry, obviously had a collection box just for helping the poor – the self-same box that Judas would steal from. Jesus taught His disciples to care for those in need, and He fully expected that His disciples would have ample opportunity to give to the poor and that they would do so. The work of the church has always included caring for those in need; indeed we read in the Scriptures that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27; ESV).” If we are not caring for the poor, then we are not practicing the religion that Christ taught, and we should not expect Him to be happy with us (cf. Matthew 25:41-46).”
At the same time, Jesus was making a statement relative to the relation of the Gospel to the poor. The Gospel is not an instrument by which we can construct the perfect charitable organization so as to address all the ills and problems plaguing society. There are many worthy causes in the world, and it is not wrong to be engaged in them. Yet Jesus, in His Wisdom and Foresight, prophesies that these problems were never going to be entirely solved, no matter how much money we throw at them, for a good number of these problems are merely symptoms of a greater issue, and until that issue is solved, problems will continue.
The true focus of the Gospel is on Christ Himself, and it was in service to Christ that Mary made her great sacrifice of love. The disciples wanted to rebuke her because she was not focused where they wanted her to be focused, but her focus, Jesus taught, was not just good, but beautiful.
No matter how good intentioned, it is always possible to get wrapped up in a pet project and start believing that all those who might be focused on other issues are misguided or wrong-headed. It is possible, even, to make an idol out of those things we perceive to be important, elevating them to a higher plateau than they deserve, making them, rather than God, the heart of all that we do.
Sometimes we may do this for ignoble reasons (as Judas did), but even if our cause is pure, if we lose sight of Christ, we will have left our first love (as did the Ephesians; cf. Revelation 2:4), and are in danger of losing our way.
If we keep Christ at the center of all that we do, we will naturally be inclined to be doing various good and charitable deeds, righting wrongs as best as we can, and standing up for that which is good. But whenever we feel the urge to start criticizing the good that others are doing, or the sacrifices that they are making for Christ, because we feel that they are not sufficiently focused on those causes we deem most worthy, we might stop and ask ourselves if we are not in danger of falling into the same trap Judas fell into.
The church of Christ wants to always be focused on Christ, and we hope you do as well. We invite you to come and worship and study with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions or comments, please share them with us
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.